Gates Foundation’s Tweets reveal passive, insular global health community

Guest Post: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is hosting a number of events today in anticipation of the opening of the philanthropy’s new public visitor center. Social media, and media in general, will play a big role in it.

If they use Twitter or Facebook to tell people about it, chances are the story will look like this:

That’s a Twitter Map (here’s a more readable but huge link) made by Marc Smith, a sociologist who studies online communities, founder of the Social Media Research Foundation and former chief of Microsoft Research’s community technologies group.

The map, he says, indicates a fairly insular and uncommunicative bunch of folks.

“It’s mostly just an echoing of the Gates Foundation,” said Smith. “There’s not a lot of response, or engagement. Basically, it looks like people preaching to the choir.”

What the map also shows, according to another social media researcher, Ines Mergel of Syracuse University, is the disconnectedness of the global health community.

Says Mergel: “What the network shows is that Gates serves as a broadcaster (see the star network on the left side around Gates Twitter account), but does not help to encourage the community to actively connect with each other. Ties are not reciprocated and there are very little interactions among the overall community.”

You can go to Smith’s Flickr account to get a look at how other communities look on social media and read more about the methodology at NodeXL. I got a little lost, to be honest. But the gist of the Gates Foundation Twitter map, says Smith, is that the global health community doesn’t really engage in an active conversation.

Today, at the Gates Foundation, as part of the day’s events, journalists have been invited from all over the world to ponder the question of why the media, in general, does such a bad job of covering issues of global health, poverty and the like.

Here’s an overview of problem at the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog, which raises the question: News Media in Crisis?

Answer: Yes.

Most would say it’s largely a crisis of the business model, or how to get paid. But Charlie Beckett, a London School of Economics prof who does think-tanks on media and wrote the blog post for the Gates Foundation, says it is also a crisis caused by trying to prop up an obsolete approach to journalism:

Journalists need to use the new technologies to tell their stories in new ways. I call it ‘networked journalism’. It means using tools like Twitter or mobile phones and it means working with the public to create the narrative. At our meeting in Seattle we are going to hear from huge traditional news organizations like the BBC who are using these techniques.

I like the promise of the new media technologies and the idea of getting journalists to network with the public to craft narratives (our discussion at Gates will be ‘covered’ on Twitter at #storytelling, by the way). I have come to actually love Twitter and see much of social media as quite promising for the future of journalism — again, if it can find a business model.

But Smith’s map raises another possible source of the problem here. Perhaps it is not just the disinterested, ignorant or change-phobic media that explains so few stories out of this arena.

Maybe part of the problem here is the passive, insular and sometimes simplistic nature of the narrative within the global health and development community itself.

This is a community devoted to — and advertising itself as — doing good. Humanitarians, in my experience, are exceptionally uncomfortable when forced to talk about things going bad. It also doesn’t help with fund-raising, of course. But it’s reality, and reality makes for better stories.

KPLU’s Tom Paulson is a reporter with decades of experience covering science, medicine and global health in the US and beyond. He is the host of KPLU’s Humanosphere blog, where this post originally appeared.

Follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and reach him via email at tpaulson@kplu.org.

  • Anonymous

    This is one of the best pieces I’ve seen on GeekWire for the issues it raises. A better future is predicated on a society that can consider and respond to increasingly complex issues. You either dumb down the story for universal appeal or elevate the message to challenge people’s capacity to think and understand. People have to be trained to expect more than sound bites, cliches and quick fixes. “Drive-by” journalism and an uninformed electorate cause plenty of damage. If nothing else, think of all the time I’ve wasted reading the “news” in the NYT. Maybe the mobile publishing models emerging now can do a better job of raising the bar.

    • Christina Halasz

      Or you stuff your pockets and play benevolent while you $hit on honest people, you FRAUD.

  • Joe M.

    Maybe the issue is that 90% of the people that do real work can’t be bothered with Twitter because it is useless.

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    People have to be trained to expect more than sound bites, cliches and quick fixes.

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    People have to be trained to expect more than sound bites, cliches and quick fixes.

  • Marc Smith

    My proposed alternative headline would read: “broadcast and in-group” rather than passive and insular.

    It is also helpful to assess these social media network maps by placing them in context.  For example, we can compare this map with the maps for several other foundations and their pattern of connection in Twitter.

    The Knight Foundation: http://www.nodexlgraphgallery.org/Pages/Graph.aspx?graphID=385

    The Ford Foundation: http://www.nodexlgraphgallery.org/Pages/Graph.aspx?graphID=383

    The MacArthur Foundation: http://www.nodexlgraphgallery.org/Pages/Graph.aspx?graphID=382The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: http://www.nodexlgraphgallery.org/Pages/Graph.aspx?graphID=377
    The Gates Foundation: http://www.nodexlgraphgallery.org/Pages/Graph.aspx?graphID=378These maps illustrate the ways foundations vary in their use of Twitter and the kinds of groups that form around them.  Gates and RWJF are among the most active and dense.  But broadly, there is a consistently low level of “isolates” in these networks: few people afe aware of these topics until they become “in-group”.  There is limited participation beyond this dense cluster.  This *is* a positive indication of “community” – lots of the people in these graphs do connect to one another.  But most are defined by the pattern of “audience” and “community”.  One cluster contains the foundation account and the many people who link (follow and retweet) it but do not link to one another.  The “community” cluster is a group of people who do link to one another, and most foundations gather one around them.  But few also gather a crowd of unconnected people, they way more “public” topics do.  An example might be something like SOPA (See: http://www.nodexlgraphgallery.org/Pages/Graph.aspx?graphID=338) which features *many* isolates – indicating a topic of popular and public discussion.
    It could be argued that this is just fine: the goal of these accounts in Twitter is to engage a relatively small and bounded community of interested professionals and the activist public.  So we might want to shift focus to a topic of interest to a foundation, for example “edreform” which is a topic of active discussion in twitter (see: http://www.nodexlgraphgallery.org/Pages/Graph.aspx?graphID=330).  Here we see a very heavy pattern of connection: high density suggests this is a community and a pretty big one.  Note, however, that the map of this topic also features very few isolates suggesting that “edreform” remains an “in-group” topic.
    Being “in-group” is not a bad thing.  It is just something that can be observed when social media populations are analyzed with social network analysis and visualization.Making maps like these regularly can also generate a way to measure the impact of engagement in social media spaces that goes beyond just measuring volumes of tweets and followers or likes and friends.  

  • Christina Halasz

    We’ve got this dictatorship of an organization being spun as a progressive supporter of democracy kept afloat through communist methods—how do you approach that in a positive light? At the end of the day, people want to make sure their own families have food and roof so they’re not going to speak out about the agenda being thrust on them as a condition of associating with this charity even if it means they are supporting criminal activity.  As someone who is a target of the management in this organization, I find it’s an insurmountable goal to try and get press coverage of the situation Melinda Gates has thrust on my family.  Nobody wants to rock the boat because the methods used to terrorize her enemies are insidious and terrifying; people don’t want to be on her blacklist.  I have no choice but to speak out and I know for a fact I am not the only one Melinda Gates is terrorizing and blacklisting. See this avatar I posted below? This belongs to one of dozens of accounts she uses anonymously on public message boards to make threats against my family:

  • Christina Halasz

    Erasing the facts doesn’t change them—erasing them makes GeekWire an accomplice.

  • http://www.bikestylespokane.com BarbChamberlain

    My first reaction is that you are mistaking the pointing finger for the moon, to borrow an image from Buddhism. 
    This line: “But the gist of the Gates Foundation Twitter map, says Smith, is that the global health community doesn’t really engage in an active conversation.”should be rewritten as:”But the gist of the Gates Foundation Twitter map, says Smith, is that the global health community doesn’t really engage in an active conversation ON TWITTER.”I’ve been an active Twitter user for several years but would never tell you that my conversations on Twitter reflect the real depth and reach of my personal and professional networks. I work in higher ed where work is being done on global health every day and the vast majority of the researchers involved are not going to spend any time on Twitter, yet they collaborate on projects, talk at conferences, and have real connections.

    I’d also suggest that some institutional Twitter accounts have the goal of connecting and engaging stakeholders, while others are set up to share information as broadcasters. If a given account has the latter goal then faulting it for not fulfilling the former goal is like shooting first and then drawing the target (which is not at all a Buddhist metaphor).

    I love social media and think it does many things–but not everything.